To hear 2016 winner Mat Hayman affectionately describe Paris-Roubaix’s brutal cobble stoning of bike and bone as “a bit special”, is to comprehend a little of the reverence in which the toughest of cycling’s five one-day monuments is held among (most of) the cycling community.
“Some riders get really hooked on it,” the 43-year-old Australian tells The Draft. “It’s the one race of the year they live for. It’s a bit special, it’s a bit out there but I fell in love with the it.”
The same can’t be said for all who’ve attempted Roubaix. Even though the Frenchman Bernard ‘the Badger’ Hinault, was in 1981 one of the few Grand Tour GC (general classification) riders to raise the famous mounted cobble trophy in the Roubaix velodrome, he only rode the race three times and later declared it “une connerie” – a bullshit race basically.
The Badger, like many others who have given Roubaix the swerve over the decades, turned his snout up at the random way 50+ kilometres of roughhewn, cobble stone farmer’s paths could cause punctures, mechanicals and crashes, not to mention a bodily jackhammering from hell.
Not Hayman, who even in Roubaix pavé royalty terms, is a bit special, sharing the record of 16 completed ‘Roubaixs’ (pl. Roubeaux?😬) with the Belgian Raymond Impanis (1947-1963) and Dutchman Servais Knaven (1995-2010).
“I liked it,” the Belgium-based Bike Exchange sporting director says by phone as he prepared to recon some of the pavé sections of this year’s 258k jaunt north to the Belgian border with his 7-man team this week. “But then I tended to be better at it than most.”
“Sure the next day you’re pretty banged up, pretty sore but it’s a great feeling to get to the Velodrome in front of the other guys. You either love it or you hate it.”
Taking home the ‘16 stone
There was plenty to love in 2016 when the then 38-year-old Hayman won a 5-man sprint including 4xchamp and Belgian cycling legend Tom Boonen in the Roubaix velodrome to take the 2016 cobble.
“I felt strangely calm,” Hayman recalls as he, Boonen, Sep Vanmarcke, Ian Stannard and Edvald Boasson Hagen entered the velodrome to sprint for the win. “I felt confident after losing the wheel of Vanmarcke earlier and then coming back. I was just doing, not thinking too much.”
The Sydney native led the sprint out and no one came around him. The cobble was his. He’d won his favourite race at the 15th attempt. “I was in the form of my life that day. At 38, I knew it was a defining moment in my career.”
It was a genuine upset – especially given he had fractured a forearm only five weeks beforehand that threatened his whole Spring classics campaign, only to famously regain fitness on a modified home trainer in his shed he smashed twice a day with some then-quite-novel heat training methods thrown into the mix.
Hayman may have been a certified cobble monster, but he had also been a certified domestique pretty much his whole career for teams like Rabobank and Sky before joining the new Australian outfit Orica-Greenedge in 2014.
As with any Roubaix victory luck played its part, with crashes and misfortune ruling favourites like Fabien Cancellara and Peter Sagan out of contention, while a puncture to his own team leader Luke Durbridge at a critical juncture freed Hayman to fully ride for himself.
But then the Roubaix rocks have always had a democratising effect in the peloton, giving underdogs a shot at glory rarely seen in the other monuments.
“There’s a long list of domestiques winning Roubaix like myself or Servais Knaven or Johan Vansummeren or Frédéric Guesdon or Magnus Bäckstedt,” Hayman says. “At Flanders you’re going to get your usual suspects but just the sheer number of kilometres on cobbles – 55 this year – means Roubaix gives a little bit of hope to the second string riders that are hard workers even for a podium or a top-10. Roubaix gives them a chance.”
“My Roubaix cobble sits pretty proudly in my lounge room that’s for sure.”
2021 Roubaix: Expect rain, wind (& chaos)
As it stands today – Thursday, September 30 – the weekend forecast is for rain and echelon-provoking southerly tail and side winds.
Hayman raced the last two properly wet Roubeaux in 2001 and 2002 and so knows what to expect over a generation of riders who have only known Roubaix for its dust and the odd mud-slimed cobble.
“Chaos. Absolute chaos,” he mock-chuckles. “There’s quite a few mechanicals and crashes and guys going back and forth, people piled up. It’s really hard to know exactly where you are and what’s going on in the race. So there is some trepidation – I don’t want to see my riders hurt, but I’m sure it’ll be a spectacle for the people watching at home.”
The slipperiness of the cobbles is likely to be compounded by the fact the reconfigured October date means tractors bringing in the sugar beet harvest have been liberally spreading mud over some of the cobbled sectors, despite the best efforts of Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix – the horde of volunteers tasked with preserving the Roubaix pavé each year.
Further compounding the cobble equation for the men will be the addition of the women’s race as well as the amateur sportif that run on Saturday.
“It’s great to see the women finally getting their shot at this race that has been iconic for the sport,” Hayman says. “I’m really happy for them even if there is the trepidation of the rain.”
He adds: “With all that going on and the recons and cars going over the route, it becomes muddy and slushy so it can be hard to see whare the cobbles start and mud ends. It’s hard to know what’s under your wheels. It gets really tricky. I’ve seen guys back in 2001 and 2002 who can barely get back on their bikes because the wheels were just slipping off the road. It’s just like riding on ice. But I think better and wider tires and equipment have made a lot of gains in that time so I’m hoping that’ll help guys stay upright.”
A perfect storm?
Roger Hammond, performance director at Team Bahrain Victorius, was similarly rain-wary when he told the Global Cycling Network: “Normally Roubaix is at the end of the cobbled classics season so the riders build confidence and experience on the cobbles until they come to the crescendo with Paris-Roubaix – the worst cobbles by far. They are in the mood; they are in the swing of it. This year with the new time in the calendar they haven’t ridden on the cobbles for months…so we are kind of brewing this perfect storm of conditions – I’m actually really nervous. I was always looking forward to a wet Roubix but if I was a rider now I’m not sure I would be.”
But Hammond said his team will not be telling its riders to take it easy. “If you hesitate at all you’ll just end up in a pile of riders on the cobbles. We won’t be telling our riders to slow down – we’ll be telling our riders if you want to see the finish and not a hospital then ride from the front and ride confidently.”
Hayman notes some of the riders have wet cobble experience from when some of Roubaix’s sectors were included in a rainy 2014 Tour de France stage. “They’ll be committed – they know what they’re getting themselves into.”
After Bike Exchange’s two designated leaders – Jack Bauer and Luke Durbridge – Hayman highlights those riders with cyclocross stripes as potential winners and calls out Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Florian Senechal as a domestic dark horse to take home the cobble.
“He’s from northern France there and he’s riding really strong so he’ll be one to watch.”
The women’s race rolls out at 13:35 from Denain on Saturday while ethe men’s race departs Compiègne at 11:15 on Sunday.
And if you’re heading to northern France to tackle the Roubaix sportif – courage!